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Rangers' bullpen in formative stages

Rangers' bullpen in formative stages

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SURPRISE, Ariz. -- The composition of the Rangers bullpen is starting to take shape.

They just need their core guys to get completely healthy and have a couple of guys -- possibly Wes Littleton and Franklyn German -- join Jamey Wright in seizing the middle relief spots available. If that happens in the next two weeks, the Rangers believe their bullpen can still be a major team strength.

"There are some issues going on or whatever you want to call them," pitching coach Mark Connor said. "We have some question marks with two or three guys that hopefully will be dispelled in the next 5-6-7 days. They just need to pitch. If they get out and pitch and have no lingering effects with what's been going on, then we're in good shape."

C.J. Wilson has made just one Cactus League appearance because of left biceps tendinitis and Joaquin Benoit has yet to make an appearance because of shoulder stiffness. Both will pitch in Minor League games on Tuesday and could be in a Cactus League game by the end of the week.

Wilson will be the Rangers' closer once he shows he is healthy and has command of the strike zone. Benoit and Kazuo Fukumori will be the right-handed setup relievers and Eddie Guardado will be the left-handed setup reliever once he gets over a strained tendon in his left knee. He went through a bullpen session on Monday and said everything went fine. He could also pitch on Tuesday as well.

Guardado, who made 15 appearances for the Reds at the end of last season after missing a year because of Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery, has pitched sufficiently well to confirm his spot in the bullpen, but the knee injury has kept him from mounting a serious challenge to Wilson's job. He has yet to pitch at full strength.

"He's getting there," Connor said. "Older guys take more time getting their bodies and arms in shape but from everything we've seen and heard, he's headed in the right direction."

Wright has pretty much nailed down one spot in the bullpen. He has a 3.12 ERA in his first five outings and he showed a glimmer of what he might do as a reliever last summer when he had a 2.05 ERA in 11 relief appearances toward the end of the season. He also fulfills the prime prerequisite of being a reliever who can pitch multiple innings.

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"I'm seeing the same stuff as last year," Connor said. "Jamey is very durable and he's a ground-ball pitcher who can get two outs with one pitch. He's got great stuff and he's become comfortable pitching out of the bullpen. He can do a lot of things, including starting on five minutes notice, pitching early in the game, pitching in the middle and we saw last year he closed a few games."

That leaves two spots open. The competition is intense, but the Rangers want it that way.

"We talked early in spring about raising the bar for the pitching staff," Connor said. "Mediocrity will not be accepted. I like the fact there is competition."

The all-right-handed field consists of Littleton, German, Frank Francisco, Kameron Loe, Scott Feldman, Jason Davis, Josh Rupe and Robinson Tejeda. All have had their moments, both good and bad. The Rangers pound the over-used word "consistency" when looking to see who will emerge.

Littleton has had the best spring to this point. Through his first six games he has a 2.57 ERA and held opponents to a .250 batting average. He has also shown he can pitch multiple innings. Left-handed hitters batted .236 off him last year while right-handers hit .279, which shows both he has an effective changeup to deal with lefties but his sinker can be occasionally erratic against right-handers.

Both he and Wright are ground-ball pitchers. The Rangers have also talked about having a reliever who can come into the middle of the game and strike out a batter in a key situation. The best candidate for that role is German. In the past it would have been Frank Francisco.

German, who has not shown the control problems he has in the past, has nine strikeouts in six innings. Francisco has one strikeout in six innings, this from a guy who had 60 strikeouts in 51 innings in 2004 but just 38 in 59 innings last year. It comes back to regaining the great split-finger fastball that he had in 2004.

"I watched him warm up in the bullpen [on Saturday] and he had as good of secondary stuff as I've seen," Connor said. "Then he came into the game and [three runs in two-thirds of an inning] everything fell apart. Frank has done a lot of good things in the past and all of those things get weighed."

Tejeda may be the "sleeper." Almost forgotten because of his troubles as a starter, Tejeda is starting to emerge as a bullpen candidate after he retired the Mariners in order in the fifth inning Monday and has been scoreless in his last four appearances. In those four innings, he has allowed one hit, not walked a batter and struck out two.

"He has been getting people out," Connor said. "His fastball has been 92 to 96 [miles per hour] and he locked up a guy on a 3-2 breaking ball the other day. He has the ability to strike you out. The focus has been what he can do out of the bullpen and so far pretty good."

Loe has also had an erratic sinker this spring, which has dimmed his chances of winning a spot. Feldman has good stuff but has altered his delivery from side-arm to three-quarters and is still trying to get consistent with it.

"He's still in the process of getting a solid feel for where the angle is at times," Connor said. "His stuff can be really good and at other times flat. But people are excited about what they're seeing. It's a matter of consistency."

Rupe, like Wright, has above-average stuff with three pitches, but has thrown just 88 1/3 innings over the past two years because of elbow problems. He is still getting a feel for pitching again and may not quite be ready for a return to the big leagues although he did pitch two scoreless innings against the Mariners on Monday.

Davis also has some of the best stuff on the staff but has a tendency to rely too much on the fastball. Connor has been working on him using his breaking pitches early in the count and when he gets behind on hitters.

The time is coming for all to show what they can do.

"We've still got two weeks," Rangers manager Ron Washington said. "That's a lot of time, but it's time for some people to step it up. This is the time of the year you get it going or you deal with it."

T.R. Sullivan is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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